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To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture

Eleonory Gilburd
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press


“In the mid-1950s,” writes Eleonory Gilburd, “hundreds of Western books, films, paintings, and sounds arrived in the Soviet Union. They arrived during its remarkable opening to the world after Stalin’s death and the xenophobia of his last decade. And they came to stay, becoming a defining feature of Soviet life.”

Gilburd places this period, widely known as “the Thaw” in the context of other phases of attempted Westernisation in Russia, notably that which is associated with Peter the Great. And she illustrates how Russians made sense of all this new material by invoking the notion of “translation” – “a mechanism of transfer, a process of domestication, and a metaphor for the ways cultures interact”.

Gilburd begins with an outline of the cultural exchange policies that made possible the arrival of Western imports. She then focuses on the Moscow International Youth Festival, organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth and the International Union of Students, before turning to literature, then film, then visual art.

Of particular interest perhaps is the career of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), a left-wing American illustrator and painter with a considerable reputation before the Second World War but who began to fall out of favour with the approach of the Cold War and, in art, the rise of abstract expressionism, which he hated. Kent’s politics and commitment to a form of artistic realism would seem to have made him a natural choice for the Soviet cultural authorities, Gilburd writes. But he was not their first port of call. In keeping with the spirit of the Thaw, the Soviets were prepared to host an American art exhibition in Moscow. And the choice of what would be exhibited would rest largely with the Americans, in spite of Russian requests for some realist pictures and portrayals of Native Americans. For the Americans, the purpose of the exhibition was to “demonstrate ... our superiority both technically and in living standards”. This involved displaying the paintings surrounded with cars, soft drinks, television sets, refrigerators and other consumer goods. Such a strategy, one might think, could have backfired, with the audience admiring the art but appalled by the vulgarity inherent in surrounding them with expensive shiny appliances. In fact it backfired in a quite different way, with visitors’ comments almost universally demonstrating that a Russian audience was sadly “not yet ready” for abstract expressionism: “I liked the cars. The art is repulsive.” “Especially good are the machines and the typical home. The abstract paintings are rubbish.”

It was time, the Soviets thought, to bring out their friend Rockwell Kent. Kent’s pictures had, in the early 1950s, been first accepted by a gallery in his beloved Maine but then refused when he was hauled before the HUAC. Towards the end of the decade he learned that his work would not be included in a representative sample of American art to be sent to Russia. In this context he decided to present all his unsold paintings, plus books, manuscripts and prints, to the Soviet Union. He was particularly delighted that his works were apparently being seen in Russia by a large number of people. Gilburd writes:

His public statements contrasted American and Soviet audiences. The Americans were either ignorant or so conceited and elitist that they wanted to suppress realism. The Soviets, however, were a cultured people capable of appreciating true art. This was a familiar image in the Soviet press and one with which many viewers regularly identified. They wrote to Kent to confirm this projection: “Your noble art will be cared for and loved by the Soviet people. Your creations have found their home.”